Because I live in New Jersey, my idea of a happy life has mostly been to get the hell out and live somewhere less vapid, brutish, and rampantly assaholic. In fact, we’ve spent five years “interviewing” more likely locations. (Our current favorites are Savannah during the teaching year and Martha’s Vineyard over the summers). If only we’d known that modern technology could have saved us all that travel. Take this ten-question quiz, and the good folks at TIME Magazine will automatically match you up with the state that most suits you. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Remarkably, when we took the test, each of us came up Georgia. Guess I’d better start developing a taste for mint juleps.
But, look. I know that happiness doesn’t come at the butt end of a moving van, even if that van is headed away from Jersey. To quote Confucius by way of Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, that’s where you are. And, even more to the point: No matter where I go, when I get there I’ll be retired, displaced, and staring into the face of the pursuit of happiness.
So, after 56 years, what exactly do I know about my own happiness?
My first thought is, not much. When I look back at my life so far, it seems to me that instead of pursuing happiness, I’ve been content with avoiding unhappiness. Not to cue the violins, but I’m an abandoned kid. Inevitably, an abandoned kid grows into an adult who is convinced that he is unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and baffled by the ways that other people seem to slide easily and contentedly through the world. So, I’ve never had a nose for joy. Mostly, “joy” for me has been the cold relief of avoiding a constant toxic feeling of wrongness and shame.
But, that’s not really fair. True, I haven’t spent my life chasing pleasure. There’ve been no sports cars, five-star restaurants, or beachfront resorts. I cringe at the idea of getting a massage or other “pampering.” Heck, I’ve never even tasted coffee or tried a cigarette. My life has been much smaller: Holding down a workaday job, being a husband and father, a few hobbies mostly in the homely worlds of folk music and community theater. Nevertheless, like the great majority of Americans, I would say I’m happy. I mean, it’s not like I am clueless when asked to choose between Red Lobster and Le Bernardin. I have some instinct for joy. So, what is it that makes me happy?
Thoreau, by way of LL Cool J, said: “Do what you love.” (Thoreau continued, “Know your own bone,” advice that seems directly related to his famed love for solitude). That would make a nice motto on some poster with a playful kitten, but really, it’s not very helpful. “Do what you love” means, happiness is doing things that make you happy. Sort of begs the question, no?
If pursuing happiness were as easy as “doing what you love,” then we’d all be blissed-out pleasure zombies, rather than thin-lipped, rueful, and rudderless. Yes, we all have hobbies, interests, diversions, sometimes even passions. But, despite all those pastimes, we no more know what makes us happy than we know how our cells accomplish mitosis.
Just consider the groaning shelf of “what to do when you retire” books at your local bookstore. The audience for those books are folks who fear that, without a job to fill our waking hours, we’ll fill them instead with reality television, outlet-mall shopping, and Bud Light swilled from cans. If people believed that “doing what you love,” whether golf, ballroom dancing, or building model ships in bottles, would actually produce happiness, we’d never see “what to do when you retire” books.
And yet, somehow, we are happy. We stumble through life, doing what we do rather than “doing what we love.” And, doing what we do makes us happy. How does the one lead to the other? Let’s see.
- For me, most of my waking hours are spent practicing law. Most lawyers, and especially trial lawyers like me, hate their jobs. But, I get real happiness from mine. I enjoy the problem-solving, the Dutch-uncle schmoozing, the gathering teetering piles of facts and law into a solid structure. However misguidedly, those parts of being a lawyer make me feel competent, clear-thinking, and effective. And, that makes me happy.
- The next largest block of my time is spent being a husband. My marriage has an unusually strong balance of yin and yang. Barbara’s awesome strengths are in creating visual beauty, giving love loyally, and intuiting emotional truths. In the hollow of that womanly curve, she allows me, and confidently expects me, to try to be a good man, which means for example accepting and cherishing her love, being confident, respectful, and reliable, and knowing when to advise and when to hold my peace. When I can live up to that role, it feels like being forty feet tall. And, that makes me happy.
- And yes, I do have hobbies. They’ve always been creative hobbies: Writing, teaching, acting, singing, songwriting, and most recently creating a concert series. I’m an awful actor, mediocre professor, and made a fair botch of my short career as a singer/songwriter. And yet, creating my classes, writing my songs or articles or reviews, taking a concert series from a little hole in the wall to a pulsing community with thousands of participants, all made me feel creative and engaged. And, that’s made me feel happy.
I do what I do. And, at their best, the things I do make me feel competent, creative, and nurturing. There, I think, is the secret of my future happiness. Doing what I love is not about playing ultimate Frisbee or reading the classics or learning the piano. Doing what I love is putting myself in a position to be creative, build community, nurture others, be a good man. Whether that means teaching at community college, leading walking tours, or volunteering to give advice at small claims court, this has to be the goal. As long as there are mint juleps waiting.